Kansas' most populous county fumbles 2nd major election

August 08, 2018 - 4:13 pm

Kansas' most populous county left the rest of the state waiting nearly 13 hours until Wednesday morning for complete primary election results that proved to be pivotal in a high profile and close Republican race for governor — the second consecutive major election fumble by the affluent Kansas City-area county.

"I'm embarrassed for our county," Johnson County election commissioner Ronnie Metsker told The Kansas City Star . "It's embarrassing for our office, it's embarrassing for me, for our team and for the vendor."

In an odd twist, one of the candidates in the tight GOP race for governor, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is also the statewide official responsible for elections. Under Kansas law, the secretary of state appoints the top elections officials in the four most populous counties, including Metsker in Johnson County. Kobach quickly came to his colleague's defense and said the delays were not Metsker's fault.

Kobach was leading Gov. Jeff Colyer by fewer than 200 votes after Johnson County's results were finally tallied, and the race has not yet been called.

"There were certainly were problems, including with the voting machines and things like that, but I have no reason to believe that there was orchestrated, or even unorchestrated, mischief," said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas.

Metsker and other officials blamed the problems on long lines and delays updating data from the computer thumb drives that gather results from Johnson County's new voting machines. This was the first election using those machines, which provide a paper audit trail and purportedly encompass the latest technology.

While nearly all of Kansas' 105 counties had posted all results except provisional and absentee ballots by late Tuesday, Johnson County's returns were just trickling in and weren't completed until nearly 8 a.m. Wednesday.

Johnson County also had significant delays reporting results in the November 2016 election, which Metsker at that time blamed on a software malfunction. The old touch-screen voting machines used in that election were 14 years old, among the oldest still in use in the country and left no paper audit trail.

In May, the Johnson County Commission approved the purchase of 2,100 voting machines at a cost of $10.5 million, the newspaper reported.

Election Systems & Software, the voting equipment vendor, said in a statement that the delay in Tuesday's primary in Kansas was due to slow processing on encrypted thumb drives and that the accuracy of the results was "never in question."

"Johnson County followed proper procedures in conducting their election," the company said. "ES&S takes accountability for and apologies for the slower than normal upload of results."

On Wednesday, Metsker and Kansas election director Brian Caskey both cited the problem with thumb drives. Each thumb drive should have taken only seconds to upload information to the reporting software.

"What should have taken seconds at first took minutes, and then minutes turned into half hours," Metsker said.

ACLU Legal Director Lauren Bonds, who helped man the election hotline, said Johnson County voters mainly called about voting machine malfunctions and the lack of preparedness by poll workers about what to do when that happens. Some sites did not have enough paper ballots as a backup. Johnson County did not appear to have "a contingency plan for these types of issues, which other counties seem better suited to handle," she said.

The Johnson County election office said in a statement Wednesday it is confident with the integrity of the votes cast and the accuracy of the vote tabulation process. The county said it was working with the vendor to identify the cause of the delay, resolve the issue, and ensure the problem does not happen again.

Multiple voting sites that were supposed to close at 7 p.m. Tuesday did not close until about 8:30 p.m. because people were still in line. The turnout of nearly 30 percent of registered voters for a primary was also higher than anticipated.

"I don't think they had enough machines deployed because it took voters longer to cast a ballot than they had planned," Caskey said. "They had longer lines and they had a higher turnout than they had planned for."

Metsker told the newspaper that in hindsight they should have had more machines and more poll workers.

Kobach appointed Metsker to clean up the mess left by Brian Newby, who departed in late 2015 to take the helm of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. An investigation by The Associated Press found Newby left behind a scandal in the Johnson County election office, where he was having an affair with a woman he promoted and used her to avoid oversight of their lavish expenses.

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